The recent buzzworthy item about Karen Brown is that her impressive piece, Primrose Path, won Best in Show at the recent Headwaters Arts Artful Revival Festival Exhibition. With 52 artists from across Ontario submitting work to this show, it is wonderful recognition for this Erin resident. Karen’s arts practice involves working with that ancient technique, encaustic wax and mixed media. What is notable is that this involves working with beeswax and that she and her husband, Joel, harvest the wax she uses from their own hives.
Encaustic work is a 3,000-year-old tradition and one that Karen fearlessly engages with, whether in collaboration or the different media she introduces or the new techniques she tries.
Starting with the underpainting, this is blocked in with Pan Pastels applied with a sponge. More layers are added using lightweight fabric from natural fibres, such as cotton, bamboo, and silk. The layering continues with more paint and wax, then introducing handmade papers, such as Kozo and mulberry paper.
With up to 60 layers in a piece, the building up process with the wax and pigment of the colours yields a unique look of the colour appearing to float as it cannot chemically bind to the wax. The process continues as Karen has been experimenting with the three-dimensionality of the medium by carving out to reveal what had been hidden. She comments that “you learn to let go with wax, it is a cathartic feel” compared to other practices where more control is required and you can feel overwhelmed.
The very nature of the materials she uses, oils, chalk pastels, watercolour, the wax, let her return to pieces years later. Musing on that process she remarks that “it is very forgiving, you can go back to it years later, like memories”. This is like the ‘ghost images’ she finds herself revealing with the carving techniques she is currently using.
Things that are pretty, like the patterns in damask, attract her, yet so do derelict images, in particular the many abandoned farmsteads in southern Ontario. When she works with photographs of old barns, the outbuildings from a farm, it is a way of preserving history and still feeling the pulse of that lifestyle, which all across the country is how Canada was settled and developed.
Highlighting her love of contrast, Karen Brown discusses how she is using this ancient encaustic technique with images she has manipulated on a computer, floating the images through the layers of wax, and then constructing her own patterns. This search for meaning as she explores what her techniques yield and what the symbolic significance is, characterizes her so well.
Her artistic practise is further grounded in history as she uses quotations from Shakespeare’s works. The work with this medium lends itself to an old-world feel with the fog, or floating feeling being quite ethereal.
“When it’s foggy, things aren’t as clear. I want to see through the fog. I try to be self-aware. Right now I’m very aware of my discomfort and I am okay to be there.”
While the matter of fact acceptance of how our world changed so quickly doesn’t mean it feels great, Karen Brown is restructuring and adapting to what is possible for her life. Her day job, while coming to a temporary halt, did resume with some interim part-time work and a renegotiated contract this fall. The Hive Encaustic Studio at Alton Mill Arts Centre is her shared studio space with Kim Kool, which allows each of them to pursue teaching their own workshops or classes and to have a working space with other like-minded creatives, all of them members of Headwaters Arts.
Having grown up on a farm in southern Ontario where her parents raised produce with their market gardening business, her roots and attachment to the land and its importance to communities are deep and strong. With her day jobs in landscape and property maintenance, Karen maintains her affinity for the outdoors and land. She finds it offers her another sort of canvas for expression with the ordering of line, shape, form, texture, and colour.
“Good photographers make you feel. I do that with paint, I create emotions. Looking at the land, I see the overall form and shapes.”
So although we discussed how people are suspended and are living in a fog in the sense of so much that is unknown, Karen holds space with those feelings. She explains that “the ghost images and carving out technique are how I am finding myself in my paintings and what I need to do right now.”
If the Primrose Path is any indication, we can be assured that Karen’s path is an inspirational one and one which is taking her in an important direction. We might well join her on an excursion on that path and enjoy the discoveries which await us on that journey.
Note: The Primrose Path is currently hanging in the Pond Gallery at the Alton Mill Arts Centre with select pieces left on view after the Artful Revival Festival Exhibition closed. It may be enjoyed there Wednesdays – Sundays and all holiday Mondays from 10 – 5.
Thumbnail Sketches is a column Connie Munson, local photographer, artist, and writer, has developed for various arts organizations to profile their artist-members. She is a local writer and photographer who enjoys discovering the ‘backstories’ of artists and learning about their creative process. Connie is a director on the board of Headwaters Arts, which has their gallery in the Alton Mill Arts Centre in Caledon, a member of several other arts organizations, and may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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